Thursday, October 16, 2014

Grading state voucher programs - how does your state rank?

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

Want to know how state voucher programs stack up? The Center for Education Reform has the answer.

In their new report, School Choice Today:  Voucher Laws Across the States Ranking and Scorecard 2014, CER takes a look at the 15 voucher programs currently in existence and gives them a grade. 

There are three As, three Bs, seven Cs and two Ds.

It’s the first analysis of its kind, providing a state-to-state comparison of the various voucher laws and builds on the work CER has done to rank charter school laws and tax credit-funded scholarship programs.

“Having a voucher law on the books is a good start, but not enough to make sure students are actually benefitting from school choice programs,” Kara Kerwin, CER president said in a press release. 

“Policy design is critical, but the true strength of school choice voucher programs depends heavily on implementation.”

The state voucher programs were evaluated in four areas:
  • Student eligibility requirements
  • Program Design
  • Preservation of private school autonomy
  • Student participation

“From the types of students eligible to the number of regulations imposed on private schools, each element of a voucher program’s design impacts how effectively the voucher truly empowers parents with the ability to choose the best school for their child,” Brian Backstrom, CER senior policy advisor and author of the report, said.

Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin earned an A grade for their programs.

With 31 out of 50 total points, Indiana offers a universal voucher program available to all students and imposes no limits on the number of vouchers awarded. But it ranked second worst in the nation when it comes to infringing upon the private schools’ autonomy because it mandates course content and allows government observation of classes.

Ohio earned 30 points for what the report called a “piecemeal” approach to vouchers with five different programs. But its top ranking for student participation was praised as a “worthy achievement.”

Wisconsin, home of the oldest voucher program in the county, also earned 30 points, with its strong Milwaukee/Racine programs offering choice to 12 percent of the state’s school-aged population.

Washington, D.C., Arizona and North Carolina tied for fourth place with 27 points, earning them a B grade.

The D.C. program has a high percentage of children receiving vouchers, but its strict income eligibility threshold is the lowest in the country which limits the program’s reach, the report said.

For the 2014-15 school year, North Carolina’s program got twice as many applications as there were vouchers available. The state is currently defending a lawsuit against the voucher program which is on hold due to an injunction halting the distribution of the funds.

Arizona’s personal education accounts worked so well it was expanded in 2013. The state deposits educational funds directly into an account controlled by the parents who can choose how to spend the funds using a type of debit card that is coded to allow its usage only for pre-approved expenses. The accounts can be used for tuition at any school, to pay for college or university courses while their child is still in high school, for online education, certified tutors, testing preparation like for SATs, or even a la carte public school courses (foreign languages, for example). They also have the choice to not spend it and put it toward a future college education. Anything not used in a year is allowed to accumulate.

It’s a popular idea. Florida just implemented a similar one and Delaware just proposed their own program based on the concept.

Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah and Mississippi all earned a C grade with scores of between 19 and 23 points.

Louisiana imposes “such significant regulatory intrusion” that it ends up with a C. Their regulations are such that new private schools are prohibited from participating.

The ranking for Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Utah and Mississippi are due primarily to the fact that their programs are only for special needs students.

Colorado’s program is tied up in legal wrangling, but even if it were implemented, it only offers 500 vouchers for the more than 62,000 eligible children.

Vermont and Maine both earned D grades because they don’t offer a modern-day voucher program, but merely a method by which students in areas and towns without any district school systems can get an education.

The report states that legislators considering vouchers or modifying their existing programs “would be well-served by examining the design elements that have led to the success of several state 
programs, and the components of state voucher program laws that are holding some states back.”

With “reliable policy blueprints and visible implementation of strong voucher programs, more state leaders need to step up to the plate in order to grow and expand school choice opportunities across the U.S. so more children have access to options that best meet their individual learning needs,” Kerwin said.

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